Comment

Violent threats and intimidation represent an attack on our democracy

Labour candidate for Finchley and Golders Green Sarah Sackman responds to Mike Freer’s decision to step down

The UK houses of parliament, viewed from across the road at the top of The Mall
The palace of Westminster – home to the UK’s houses of parliament

In 2015 I ran to be MP for Finchley and Golders Green against Mike Freer. I remember us jousting at hustings and community events. While we have very different political views, we knew how to disagree with civility.

Mike’s announcement that he will be stepping down at the next general election has shocked me and others across our local community. He has cited repeated death threats and security concerns, adding that his fears have extended to his family. That he feels this way is deeply troubling not just for him personally, but for what it says about the state of our public life and our democracy. 

As we know from the terrible murders of MPs Sir David Amess and Jo Cox, being an elected politician puts you at risk. Their murders showed that the threat comes from no one part of the political spectrum: David was murdered by an Islamist, Jo by a far-right extremist.

Politicians expect scrutiny, criticism and protest. We go into it with our eyes open. But violent threats and intimidation of any politician represent an attack on our democracy.

I absolutely respect Mike’s decision. I haven’t received the threats he has had. But we should have been able to face each other at the polls on our policies and our individual merits. Instead, politics is now skewed by violent language, hate and the worst excesses of social media. 

So why would I put myself forward as Labour candidate in the coming election? 

Because despite the abuse that I and many others receive, online and in person, I believe in politics. I believe in its power to make the world better and to give people a voice to shape the society they want to see – something that is needed now more than ever. 

These things matter, in an election year more than any other. 

Friends from abroad have often remarked to me on the accessibility of British politicians: from knocking on doors to holding constituents’ surgeries; from attending local events to engaging with people in their homes and workplace.

I don’t want to see us lose that part of our political culture. But if we value our democracy, then we have to work actively to protect it. Mike’s resignation and the testimonies of politicians from across the spectrum are a wake-up call. 

This goes well beyond party politics. All parties need to come together to ensure the safety of our politicians and our democracy.

This means seeking cross-party agreement to ensure the security of politicians and their staff. We should consider creating a specific offence for threatening or harming an elected public official or candidate.

It seems remarkable that no such crime exists unless the threat is to the King or his heir. The creation of a particular offence, with tougher sentences against those who threaten or attack politicians, would reflect the fact that threats to a politician do not just harm the individual, they harm our democracy.

We should hold to account social media giants that give a platform to extremist content. 

And we should recommit to calling out the sort of speech that incites violence and hate in others  – on all sides. We should all think carefully about how language affects not just the tone of debate, but the safety of others.

The stakes are high, for people like Mike and for anyone willing to speak up for what they believe in. But I am determined for this to change. Achieving that change is one of the most important reasons I am standing.

Sarah Sackman is prospective Labour parliamentary candidate for Finchley and Golders Green.

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